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Rainer Maria Rilke
The leaves fall, fall as from far,
Like distant gardens withered in the heavens;
They fall with slow and lingering descent.
And in the nights the heavy Earth, too, falls
From out the stars into the Solitude.
Thus all doth fall. This hand of mine must fall
And lo! the other one:—it is the law.
But there is One who holds this falling
Infinitely softly in His hands.

Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the great poets in the German language. We met him earlier in this series when we read his wonderful poem “You, Neighbor God.” This poem, “Autumn,” was published in 1902, in Rilke’s collection The Book of Images, when the poet was 26 years old.
This poem is particularly timely this year. It seems to me that we have had an unusually beautiful autumn, with more colors than we usually see in the Pacific Northwest. Falling leaves are all around us these days.
In Rilke’s poem, the falling leaves lead to a meditation that takes us deep into the cosmos.
“The leaves fall, fall as from far, / Like distant gardens withered in the heavens.” Looking at the falling leaves, the poet imagines them falling, not from the branches of trees, but from much farther away—from unseen gardens, “withered in the heavens.” We see the leaves, but we do not see where they have come from. In this poem, the leaves are immediately more than leaves: they are a mystery.
As Rilke describes them, the leaves fall, not cheerfully, or even randomly, but reluctantly, “with slow and lingering descent.” Other translations of the poem make this reluctance even more clear. One translation says, “Each leaf falls as if it were motioning ‘no,’” and another says: “they fall as if refusing their descent.” The leaves, already far from their gardens in the heavens, already falling, are still saying “no” all the way down.
That pattern of reluctant falling, “with slow and lingering descent,” is echoed in the cosmos itself. The earth, too, Rilke says in the second stanza, is falling, out of the stars “into the Solitude.” This poem was written in 1902, before the theory of the expanding universe was developed, but to me, it perfectly captures that haunting idea of the earth itself moving into deeper loneliness and isolation, in a starless emptiness.
In the third stanza, the poet recognizes that this falling is a universal pattern. It is in all of us, too. The poet looks at his hand, so active now, and knows that it will fall, just as the rest of creation falls. It is unavoidable: “it is the law.”
We are those falling leaves, aren’t we—we know we will fall to earth, too, but we say “no” all the way down. Falling is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we accept it.
But the poem ends hopefully, because Rilke’s reflection leads him to God. There is “One” who holds all of this falling—the leaves, the universe, and ourselves—“infinitely softly” in his hands. In the first part of the poem, we get movement, instability, and resistance:  only in the last lines do we encounter something—someone—who is stable: God, who “holds” everything, even this universal falling, gently in his hands. In a universe of change and transition, God is unchanging.
St Teresa of Avila said it in another way in the poem known as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”:
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Short poem, short reflection! During the coming days, I hope you find time for an autumn walk to reflect, with Rilke, on the falling leaves.



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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